Israel, Hamas, scale back attacks amid reports of deal

Israel has scaled back its airstrikes on, and raids into the Gaza Strip, and Hamas has suspended its rocket attacks on southern Israel, amid reports Monday the sides have reached an informal ceasefire. ( dpa )

Although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told al-Arabiyeh television that Hamas had agreed to limit its rocket attacks if Israel did not target the movement's militants, officials on both sides were quick to deny there was any tacit agreement, and indicated that attacks would continue in the future.

The denials come as the number of rocket attacks on southern Israel has declined sharply in recent days, with only 10 rockets and mortars launched since Friday, and no Israeli airstrikes or raids into the salient.

"There is no cease-fire agreement with Hamas, and nor are there direct or indirect talks," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday afternoon, as he met visiting Czech Premier Mirek Topolanek.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak was equally direct, telling Israel Radio that "the operational activity in Gaza is continuing and will continue."

Hamas, for its part, said through a spokesman that "the growing debate on calm (in the Gaza Strip) does not mean there is a deal or understanding.

The current lull was in fact due to "field tactics away from any political agreement, "Ayman Taha told reporters.

At the same time however Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, who continues to call himself prime minister despite being sacked by Abbas last June, said his administration in the Gaza Strip will aid Egyptian efforts to achieve a truce.

He added, in a statement sent to the media, that he hoped the truce would lead to the end of Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip, imposed when Hamas gunmen routed forces loyal to Abbas in the salient and assumed security control of the enclave.

"The calm should come in the context of stopping the aggression, lifting the siege and reforming internal ties on the basis of adhering to rights and national principles," he said.

Reports of a deal between Israel and Hamas come one week after a bloody five-day escalation in the Gaza Strip, during which over 120 Palestinians were killed in Israeli airstrikes and ground operations, and militants launched 258 rockets, including long-range Gard0-type Katyusha rockets, at southern Israel.

The high Palestinian death toll led Abbas to suspend Palestinian participation in peace talks with Israel, but he backed down when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region last Tuesday and Wednesday.

Following the visit, US envoy David Welch travelled to Cairo, as Abbas noted that "there are efforts by Egypt to bring calm."

Israel and Abbas last agreed to a truce in the Gaza Strip on November 26, 2006.

But that ceasefire did not hold, since it included only the Gaza Strip, and militants from the salient soon began firing rockets into Israel to avenge Israeli military operations in the West Bank.

Hamas has said that any truce with Israel must include the West Bank as well, where Israel conducts daily "search and arrest raids" of wanted militants.

Israel is unlikely to agree to this condition, and is also unwilling to enter into any formal deal with Hamas which would end the international isolation imposed on the Islamist organization after it won the 2006 Palestinian elections, and refused to renounce violence and change its charter to recognise the Jewish state's right to exist.

Israel also does not want to give the impression that Hamas rocket attacks forced it to come to terms with the militant organization.

But the English-language Jerusalem Post quoted Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah as saying that Israel and Hamas have reached "secret understandings" to stop the violence. The deal was reached under the auspices of Egypt, the unnamed officials said.

According to Israel Army Radio, quoting a "senior security source," Israel has formulated tacit, secret and indirect understandings with Hamas, under which it will refrain from attacking Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip and Hamas will stop launching rockets and mortars at southern Israel.

The Ha'aretz daily reported that the Israeli government has ordered the military to "exercise restraint" in operations in the Gaza Strip, as a prelude to new rules under which Israel will not attack Hamas if it stops its rocket fire.

Barak, however, said that "this warfare is ongoing. It will continue and sometimes it will surge and relax. There are various calculations which have to be taken into account, ranging from the weather to the availability of the targets."

Israel's objective in Gaza, Barak said, "is to bring about an end to the high trajectory fire into Israel, and end to the terrorist activities from inside Gaza and for the smuggling and importing of rockets, explosives and other weapons into Gaza to be dramatically reduced."

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